PSV, Roma, Lyon, Sevilla could upset Champions League established order
The Champions League group stage has become somewhat predictable. Most of the big boys streak off into the distance and qualify with ease, while UEFA president Michel Platini's well-intentioned reforms result in some real no-hopers reaching this stage, but the likes of Maccabi Tel Aviv, Gent, Malmo and Astana have almost no chance of progression.
That means interest comes from the sides in-between -- not clubs with recent success in Europe's major competition, but from big leagues, with good coaches and talented footballers who have a chance of a genuine run in the tournament. Here are four intriguing sides who might have a key role to play in Champions League 2015/16.
A change in the way UEFA conducted seedings for this season's Champions League draw worked out brilliantly for PSV. Under previous rules, they would have been in Pot 3 and subject to an extremely tricky draw, but because they were Dutch champions, and the Eredivisie was one of the top-ranked leagues in Europe, they were instead in Pot 1. That's given them a greater chance of progression.
As always, Dutch champions tend to lose a couple of their better players, and PSV are no different. Memphis Depay has joined Manchester United and will return to Philips Stadion -- promising to celebrate if he scores -- while club captain Georginio Wijnaldum left for Newcastle.
Nevertheless, PSV still have some fine attacking talent and, perhaps more importantly, a bright young coach in Phillip Cocu, the latest on a long line of Dutch legends to turn their hand to coaching.
PSV will probably play more reactively than you expect from a classic Dutch side, and will utilise the pace of Luciano Narsingh on the right flank. An incredibly direct player, Narsingh has never been a prolific scorer but is capable of turning defence into attack quickly. Goals are more likely to come from Luuk de Jong, who has scored five in five so far this season, although he often struggles away from the Eredivisie.
Andres Guardado is another key man. While he made his name as a left-sided speedster, he's developed into a central midfielder in the Netherlands and his guile will be crucial if PSV need to command games. The other star is ex-Chelsea centre-back Jeffrey Bruma, who has the potential to become a great all-round defender.
In a group with Manchester United, Wolfsburg and CSKA, qualification won't be easy. But, back in the big time for the first time since 2008-09, PSV might start to re-establish themselves as a major European force.
The capital club are consistently disappointing in the Champions League. For such a big club who often have brilliant managers and world-class attackers, it's a surprise that they've managed only two quarterfinal appearances in the Champions League era, never reaching the semis. They also have a peculiar ability to completely self-destruct against top opposition, losing 7-1 to Manchester United in 2006/07, and by the same scoreline against Bayern last year.
This is the best side Roma have had for a few years, however, and Rudi Garcia is an impressive manager who gets his sides playing organised, direct football that might suit the knockout stages of European competition. It's also the first time Roma don't have Francesco Totti in their default starting XI, which might help. While a Serie A legend, he's often struggled with continental football.
Roma's main area of strength is their excellent central midfield zone, where Daniele De Rossi continues to play the deepest role, with Miralem Pjanic creating just ahead to his right, and Radja Nainggolan playing a box-to-box role to his left. On their day, this trio is capable of outplaying anyone.
Further forward, Garcia has great tactical variety. There's height from Edin Dzeko, counterattacking speed from Mohamed Salah, clever movement from Juan Iturbe, unpredictability from Gervinho, width from Iago Falque -- oh, and still some creativity from Totti, probably in the final 20 minutes.
A potential weakness is at full-back. Alessandro Florenzi is more of a box-to-box midfielder but looks set to play on the right, while Lucas Digne is hugely talented but lacks experience.
Barcelona will top Group E, but Roma have a good chance of beating Bayer Leverkusen to second place, with BATE the whipping boys. In truth, it's about time Roma finally did something in the Champions League.
Lyon feel like a throwback: a young, largely homegrown side which hasn't yet been ripped apart by clubs from bigger European leagues. That process will probably start next summer -- Clinton N'Jie left last month but wasn't really a major name -- and therefore Lyon might consider this a terrific opportunity to return to the knockout stages of the Champions League.
They will, however, have to cope without dynamic attacking midfielder Nabil Fekir, who suffered a serious knee injury on international duty for France recently, and will be out until after Christmas. This robs Lyon of one of their most exciting young talents, although they strengthened in the summer and should be able to cope.
Lyon are unusual in this season's Champions League because of manager Hubert Fournier's preference for a midfield diamond. With Yoann Gourcuff departing -- although he was usually injured anyway -- Lyon signed ex-Marseille playmaker Mathieu Valbuena to play as their No. 10. A brilliantly inventive, intelligent playmaker always drifting toward the flanks to find space, he ensures Lyon don't become too narrow and is capable of both dictating play and providing killer balls.
The team's real superstar, however, is Alexandre Lacazette, who offers pace, power, dribbling ability, creativity and goal scoring. He's arguably the complete forward, which makes it slightly surprising he hasn't been snapped up by a bigger club yet. That said, he's struggled to get going this season after a brilliant 2014-15.
His partner would have been Fekir, but the recruitment of Claudio Beauvue forms a more natural strike duo. Fresh from 17 goals with Guingamp last season, Beauvue has a surprising habit of scoring plenty with his head, despite being only 5-foot-8.
Elsewhere, Lyon have an outstanding holding midfielder in Maxime Gonalons, a settled defence and a couple of dynamic attacking full-backs. Group H opponents Valencia will be tough, but Zenit might struggle and Gent are odds-on to finish bottom. Lyon should reach the knockout stage.
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The first team to qualify for the Champions League thanks to success in the Europa League and, as back-to-back winners of that competition, clearly a team with the mentality and strategic capacity to cope in knockout competition.
Unai Emery is a fascinating manager, a tactical obsessive whose attention to detail is quite startling, but he appears capable of communicating his ideas to his players effectively too. He might just discover the Champions League is perfect for his style of coaching.
Sevilla lost two big names in the summer, with striker Carlos Bacca joining Milan and Aleix Vidal heading to Barcelona. In theory they've been replaced well, with Fernando Llorente upfront and the existing combination of Vitolo and Coke perfectly acceptable down the right, but Sevilla have struggled so far this season. They've managed just one goal, and two points, from their three La Liga matches so far.
This might be a squad that needs time to settle. Ciro Immobile showed he's capable of being prolific in Serie A but struggled in the Bundesliga with Dortmund, while Yevhen Konoplyanka has finally secured a move to a bigger league after years of speculation, but will encounter much tougher defences than he faced with Dnipro. That said, he's twice been named in the Europa League's team of the season, and therefore like his new employers is ready for the step up.
The side's best performer is arguably defensive midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak, such a tough competitor that he suffered a broken rib in the 5-4 European Supercup defeat to Barcelona in August, yet still played on. He has the ability to put Sevilla in charge of games, before providing the wide players with passes, encouraging them to attack. As always, Sevilla are particularly dangerous down the flanks.
Peculiarly, Sevilla are in a group alongside two other sides, Juventus and Borussia Monchengladbach, who also haven't recorded a league victory this season, while Manchester City have been in tremendous form but are often underwhelming in Europe. Realistically, Sevilla will probably need seven points from their three matches at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan to progress, and tonight's home match against Gladbach is therefore crucial.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.